For most men the diagnosis of infertility comes as a shock. For others, vasectomy or the after effects of chemotherapy make it more of a known quantity, but it can still be hard to get your head round the idea that you will need help from another man to make a baby with your partner.
Men are generally not prepared for the news that they can't produce the sperm needed to create a baby, unless ill health has indicated that this may be the case. When the diagnosis arrives you have be confronted by a new and different world that we are unfamiliar with. Expressing the host of thoughts and feelings that accompany this new knowledge can feel very difficult and overwhelming. It involves not just coming to terms with the reasons for your infertility, or in some cases the lack of explanation for it, but also poses the fundamental question, “if we still want to have children, then what next?”.
You will need to think through with your partner what opportunities and challenges will be faced with if you want to have children which can put a lot of strain on a relationship. But talking about how you feel can also help you explore your relationship in a deeper and more positive way.
What is important to recognise is that by choosing to have a child through sperm donation we are embarking on a journey not just as a couple but as individuals as well. Our feelings don’t stop at the decision to have a child through donor conception. They exist throughout the process of trying to conceive a child and beyond.
The journey may also contain some roads that do not lead to the place we hoped they might reach and cause pain to ourselves and our partners. They may also raise questions about our identity as a man who never expected to ‘fire blanks’ or have to negotiate the practical and emotional worlds of IVF treatment, ICSI, or donor insemination. We never thought it would be this difficult!
Here are some common concerns:
I couldn’t bond with a child that’s not mine
“Stands to reason. We love our children because they’re genetically related to us. That’s the way nature made us."
Just not true. There are thousands of step-families out there with loving step-dads not to mention families created through adoption and fostering. Since when has lack of a genetic connection stopped people bonding with one another? The usual reason why a man may reject a child that’s not genetically his is because the child has been conceived as a result of infidelity, and is a standing reminder of the betrayal. But in donor conception that isn’t the case. There’s no reason why a child conceived deliberately by someone with the intention to be a parent wouldn’t be loved by the man – as thousands of donor conception dads can testify. The baby will be one you and your partner have thought about, decided on, and that has been growing inside your partner for nine months, and has finally been born to you both. It’s difficult not to love and bond with a baby made this way.
Having said that, resolving any underlying feelings of anger, grief and sadness at not being able to use your own sperm in the creation of your child is a key component to successful parenting. You need to allow yourself time to let go of the child you had hoped for, but which cannot be, before you can start to allow yourself to consider and welcome the child that could be.
I don’t have to do what you say, you’re not even my father!
This is the fear that haunts many sperm donation dads. In practice it doesn't happen very often but when it does the answer that works best is usually a confident 'I'm the only dad you've got' sort of reply. Testing boundaries is the job of teenagers. Resisting the push against them is the job of parents. There are many aspects of being a parent. One is obviously the genetic one. But the active role of parenting, providing a home, love, care and attention is a huge component.
There’s lots to come to grips with for a man contemplating an egg donation cycle. First there is the sadness, almost grief, that as a couple you face on the loss of fertility of your partner. This wasn’t what you expected. Thinking of having a family, you assumed it would be with the genes of the woman you love, the woman you admire and have envisaged as the mum to your child.
To get this far some of you will have been through a long journey of infertility investigations, possibly IVF and the awful disappointments after each attempt, before the problem was isolated and it became clear that an egg donor was needed. For others, your partner’s age or perhaps premature menopause (POF) will have led you straight to egg donation.
You’ve probably had to spend huge amounts of emotional energy supporting your partner through disappointments and much sadness. If you are both unaffected by it all, something wouldn’t be right. You have a right to feel exhausted. But it won’t have been easy for you to find an outlet for the feelings you have been carrying. You don’t want to burden your partner with your emotional baggage at a time when you can see what she is going through. Sharing some of these feelings with other potential or actual egg donation dads in the Network may help.
Now you may be facing the practical issues of where to have treatment. Will this be the same place you had your investigations and possibly IVF? Going elsewhere will be yet another step into the unknown. And then there is the cost. If you are the main bread-winner and take the lead on finances, does your partner believe you when you say that as a couple you can afford it?
Then there is this egg donor to think about. Another woman. What can you know about her? Why is she donating her eggs? What characteristics of physique or of personality will she bring to this potential child? Talk about a blind date, here you are blind-folded, deaf and mouth-gagged. It’s going to be a leap in the dark. Your sperm is going to meet another woman’s egg. At least your contribution to the event will be something you will have control over.
This roller-coaster of a journey so far has been driven by the desire for a child of you both as a couple. You can say, of course, that you both equally want a child, but in a couple the feelings of each partner are never exactly equal. Is it your partner who is really driving this, and you are just following where she is leading? Then it’s time to take stock. Being a follower isn’t wrong, so long as you know where you’re going, and you’re not being led somewhere you really don’t want to go. Your partner, after all, has had to make the big decision; she’s accepted the emotional sacrifice of giving up hope of having a child genetically hers; she’s facing the prospect of carrying a child created with the egg of another woman. You are entitled to trust someone who is brave enough to really accept all that. You should be proud of her.
But you are entitled to your own feelings as well. If you are just suppressing a whole load of anxieties for fear of burdening her with your worries, that’s not going to be a good strategy. You are going to need to share what you are feeling. And if your true thoughts are that you are really unhappy and don’t feel you could support going down the egg donation route, for goodness sake you have to say so before it’s too late. But maybe your concerns are less dramatic than that. You just feel you don’t want to just be a by-stander, just a sperm provider, in this whole business. You want to be a more equal partner in the process, in the decision-making. That’s an entirely healthy reaction – but still one you should share with her.
And then there’s the concern you may be harboring about whether she, or you, will bond with a child that’s genetically related to a stranger. Every time you look at this baby, are you going to feel “this baby may be half mine, but it doesn’t feel fully ours either”? This hypothetical worry turns out to be very rare in practice. Once a baby is there, smiling, demanding, crying, needing attention, responding, full of its own personality, chances are you’ll be bowled over, and you’ll look back and wonder what all those concerns you had were about. The experience of hundreds of egg donation dads in the Network is that ‘bonding’ is rarely an issue for either parent.
Have a look at the Personal Stories section for many accounts by men of the way they handled their infertility and journey to parenthood by donor conception.
Our highly regarded Preparation for Parenthood workshops are a fantastic space to explore things in a safe and intimate environment. The feedback we get is always hugely positive, people often saying they didn't realise how valuable it would be in terms of building confidence in making a decision that feels right.